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Moontower Comedy Fest is more marathon than fest

Moontower Comedy Fest is a marathon for all involved. For the organizers– undoubtedly, for the performers who are often booked at overlapping events, but also for the audience members– existing in the tension of humor along with the comedians.

After picking up my badge, I headed to Higbie’s. The venue, I learned as the third act made a jab at the silliness of the name, is eponymously named. Decorated with the agreeably urban choice of brick, the audience finds out along with the performer that the photos adorning the walls are of the proprietor himself. A reverse-haired (bald on top, bushy beard on bottom) middle aged bar-owner looking fellow. The closest any act came to poking fun at the self-refential decor was pondering if it were decorated like his house.

Upon entering the club, I recognized a few of the comedians I’ve seen before. Often, in smaller venues, there may not be a green room or dressing room to offer any separation between the doers and watchers, so the comedians just have to hang out at the bar like everyone else. This is the part of Moontower that I have a complicated relationship with. The exposure to the artists is already high with stand-up, but is ratcheted up exponentially during Moontower Comedy Fest. 

Through the sidewalks, bars, and milling around the clubs, the public and the performers are shaken together like mixed spices in a bowl. Walking the streets downtown, it's fairly common to see comedians commuting between gigs. With over 200 artists pretending they’re not lost scattered downtown, if a spectator completely misses the chance to bump into someone they laugh at, they didn’t do Moontower correctly. This exposure offers plenty of opportunities to engage with the performers. And I don’t know how to feel about this. 

As a fan of the art of stand-up, my motivation for going to see a show is to laugh. As important as my motivation for laughing is my intention to support the artist. Not to challenge the performer to make me laugh. Not to be duped into laughing. I know some members of the audience can approach stand-up with a skeptical attitude, of almost not wanting to offer a laugh in return for the effort of the joke. As though laughing would admit that they were tricked into laughing, and folks don’t want to admit to being tricked into anything. At least one comedian blatantly betrayed the trust of the audience over the weekend and paid dearly for it for the next several jokes.

Oftentimes, I’ll laugh at a joke as a show of support, even if I didn’t naturally laugh at the joke. The joke may have been a little silly, or obvious, or name-your-gripe, but I love that people care enough to put themselves onstage and give some effort into making people laugh. To continue to show my support for this endeavor, I’m going to laugh. I’ve been told I have a good one, might as well use it. 

I figure I’m here to support comedy and the people who do it. So when I see the artists mingling about the club, if they’re between interactions from others, I try to introduce myself and tell them I enjoyed their set. I’m even annoying enough to offer tags to some of their jokes. 

But on the streets of downtown, the exposure can almost feel too much. Like a situation where maybe somebody should be wearing a condom. Shouldn’t there be a layer of separation here? I worry for the entertainers that if I’m this exhausted just listening to their acts, I can’t imagine how drained they must be from doing however many shows a day while being interrupted by nerds like me between them. Maybe some enjoy the recognition or encouragement, or maybe they can’t even spare the extra attention that I’d ask for as we wait for the signal at the light to change.

After being introduced onstage, a few of the comedians will observe that the audience ceases their clapping fairly early. In stand-up, it's important for an emcee/warm up act to build up the energy of the audience. The performers thrive on the noise. Stand-up comedy is one of the most vulnerable acts of humanity, and it is best confronted with a wall of noise. When a comedian is met with silence onstage, it can be a disconcerting feeling. 

During Moontower, the people lose steam quickly. Audiences are subjected to dozens of acts each night, this takes a significant amount of concentration to digest– concentration that drains mental capacity. Which, I suppose is why we’re all here– to exhaust our minds of whatever is rattling around in there. But along with flushing our mental toilets, the onslaught of laughs renders the act of clapping into a Sisyphusian undertaking.

Walking back to my car one night, I saw a fellow badge holder wandering. Even the softest of conversation I could offer could not capture this man’s attention. I’m surprised he didn’t wander into traffic as intellectually depleted as he was. I probably should have mugged him, for his own good– I’d be a lot more gentle than the real muggers.

On Thursday night, I attended Natalie Palamides’ one woman show, Weer. Having seen Palamides perform last year, I felt strongly inclined to check it out. A ‘90s rom-com, Weer focuses on the relationship dynamics of Mark and Christina, Mark being represented by Palamides’ right side– Christina, her left. 

The physicality of the performance was immensely impressive– there’s a recurring scene where Christina is laying down, but being cradled by Mark; to portray this, Palamides moves swiftly between a pronounced prone side crunch and kneeling, playing as if he is supporting her. With Weer, Palamides incorporates myriad foundational comedy elements with more sophisticated bits that indicate an almost academic approach to the discipline of comedy. Delivered with calculated athleticism that renders obvious the point that she commits her entire being to the joke, Palamides is a comedic craftsperson who’s clearly well acquainted with the tools of humor.

After the show, I headed down dirty Sixth to the Velv Comedy Lounge to check out the Joke of Painting, which I understood to be a Bob Ross/Painting with Wine-like experience delivered by comedians. On my stroll, I noticed someone who looked familiar– I had seen her perform at Higbie’s last night. After a brief period of mulling over whether I should engage this person, I overcame my tendency to avoid confrontation and said ‘hi’.

When asked if she was who I thought she was, the entertainer glanced away from me, obfuscating whether this motion was to hide scorn that I would approach, or a flattered embarrassment to be recognized. With each interaction, I feel pulled to say something at least a little insightful. But listening to over a dozen comedians within the same two hours, its difficult to remember a specific joke to reference later. 

The Joke of Painting turned out to be more fun as a concept than it was in execution. The comedians have a large easel and paints to guide the audience, who have painting supplies themselves to follow along as the comedian humorously directs the crowd. After arriving late, each of the four comedians I saw mentioned having nothing to do with art. It's common enough to hear comedians express apathy, to see that trope played out further wasn’t very impressive. From what I could tell from the back of the house, it seemed like the rest of the audience agreed as engagement was low. If the performers selected for this show had any art experience, I feel like this would have done better. 

Friday evening, the only show I attended was Shane and Blair’s Big Rib Rodeo at 800 Congress. I love outlandish ideas, especially involving food. I especially love implications of gastrointestinal trauma, as would a rib eating contest immediately followed by riding a mechanical Bull suggests. I also think working the crowd during these types of events is a good test of comedic inclination. Keeping the crowd interested and engaged throughout witnessing people make absolute messes of themselves on a stage is not an easy task. People who can maintain humor through disgust are a special breed indeed.

That's me on the left! Photo cred: Annie Fitchner

In high school, the only extra curricular I participated in was theater. For a spring fundraiser, the theater department put on a sketch/variety show. My friend Danny and I did a bit where we made sandwiches but the arms making the sandwiches were the arms of a pair of volunteers behind us. So our hands were behind our backs while the people volunteering their arms couldn’t see what they were doing. My sandwich ended up being only tomato and mayonnaise, which easily made for the worst sandwich I’ve had to this day. I’m on surprisingly good terms with mayo though. 

I had a huge crush on The gal who lent her arms to play mine. I remember being elated that it worked out that she would be standing so close to me for what ended up being too long of a time. Danny and I wore full hazmat style painting suits, and I think we didn’t give the girls anything but gloves. My face had a beard of Mayo accompanied by bits of tomato. Immediately after the show, I won’t forget how disgusted she was with the sight and smell of me. She ended up moving away not long after that, and to this day I refuse to believe that I didn’t influence that decision for her family at least a little bit.

Despite an emotional admittance of cheating by Palamides (last year’s returning champ), I don’t know if any hearts were broken on stage or afterward. But I know that I yelled a lot to encourage the eaters. This event reminded me of an Austin FC match. I have no strong opinions on soccer, but I like public places where yelling is encouraged. I’ll go to a couple games a year, it’s a great emotional outlet. It’s a lot like an evangelical church, with the parishioners sweating and crying.  There’s real catharsis to be swept up in yelling for/at/against some humans who can completely disregard you. Shane and Blair’s Big Rib Rodeo delivered the sermon to which I could vent all my worldly frustrations without having to clarify or offer any reasoning for, as I would if I were to ‘talk it out’ like a pussy.

Saturday evening’s show of Cowboys by Business Casual served as hilarious punctuation for the end of Moontower. Business Casual is a troupe of guys who’s comedic inclinations parallel that of my own demographics. Moontower is great at getting a diverse array of acts, a festival attendee has myriad opportunities to widen their perspective of comedy from performers who come from wildly differing backgrounds and contemporary lifestyle labels. 

After seeing dozens of comedians over the last few days, Business Casual’s Cowboys offered lighthearted horseplay complete with silly hats and cap guns as respite from the now obligatory “did y’all know that Texas doesn’t allow abortions?” jokes. Don’t get me wrong, those jokes are important, but for as many folks to choose to till that field, the fertility of the joke relies on the complexities of the delivery rather than just of the soil of the material itself. An evening with Business Casual is a lot like hanging out with your goofy buddies, but without the pressure of having to contribute to the antics.

In Cowboys, the fellas deliver silly stage gags with uncompromised authenticity. The long-form play offers a solid scaffolding of structure for the boys to foist refreshingly original jests at western/cowboy tropes. The show lets the place in your body where laughs come from simmer for just a few moments before boiling over into hysterics. 

Moontower is a wonderful avenue for exposing oneself to comedy. If you’re not careful, this exposure can become indecent surprisingly quickly.

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